A Garden Room with a View

Landscape architect Rachel Lilly designs outdoor spaces that reflect the history and sentiment of the land.

Twenty years ago, when Rachel (who is known to her friends as Rusty) Lilly and her husband Graham inherited Bogota (pronounced like pagoda)—a historic two-story brick Greek Revival house in Port Republic built in 1845 by Graham’s ancestor Jacob Strayer—she immediately began planting trees on the 165-acre property. By the time she was finished, she had added more than 250 trees around the house, in the fields, along the river, and defining the property boundaries.

“Always start with trees,” she advises. “They’re the bones of your property. Next focus on your major shrubs to form garden rooms.”

This is sage advice from a renowned landscape architect whose clients include owners of many of Virginia’s most important historic estates, including Castle Hill, Esmont, Blue Ridge Farm, and, most recently, Tiverton.

From an early age, Lilly had a penchant for design. “I’ve always enjoyed arranging things,” she says, adding that as a child, she loved to play with her toy farm, setting up the fences, farm buildings and animals into pleasing designs, and then rearranging them. “I have an innate propensity for ordering the landscape,” she says.

Lilly received her master of landscape architecture from the University of Virginia School of Architecture in 1981. She then worked briefly for a small firm before opening her own practice, Rachel M. Lilly, in 1983. It quickly grew through word of mouth, and today she has clients all over Virginia as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, Louisiana, Maryland and New York.

For her master’s degree thesis, Lilly studied Charles Gillette, who is considered the state’s most important 20th-century garden designer. He established a style, known as the “Virginia Garden,” that is characterized by its understated classicism and attention to detail. Today, Lilly is recognized as a Gillette expert, and many of her jobs have been to restore Gillette gardens that have fallen into decay.

In 2002, Lilly worked with Chuck and Kimberley Cory of Blue Ridge Farm near Charlottesville to restore the grounds of their property to Gillette’s original plan. “We had such confidence in Rusty’s vision for the garden,” says Kim. “She is a Gillette scholar, and because Blue Ridge Farm had the remnants of a Gillette garden, it was wonderful to have her expertise.”

Armed with Gillette’s original plans for Blue Ridge Farm, which are archived at the Virginia Historical Society, Lilly rebuilt the old formal rose and flower gardens, the boxwood parterre and restored old herringbone brick paths. The project took four years to complete.

She also chose the site and designed a swimming pool to replace one built in the 1960s. The new pool is surrounded by a brick terrace laid in a herringbone pattern that echoes the paths Gillette designed for the property. The site has a view across a grassy lea to a forest beyond.

Most recently, Lilly resurrected the magnificent Gillette garden at Tiverton, an estate in Greenwood near Charlottesville. Originally installed in the mid-1930s, the garden was completely overgrown, the signature Gillette brick walls were crumbling and the reflecting pool couldn’t hold water. Lilly oversaw the reconstruction of the 12-foot walls, the garden pool and five major garden rooms. Today, the gardens are as fresh as they were the day Gillette first installed them 83 years ago.

“It’s important to preserve Gillette’s and other historic gardens because they set historic precedence,” says Lilly. “Gillette’s designs contribute to the historic fabric of the region in which he worked, and his gardens were the foundation of the homes he was appointing.”

Lilly’s design sensibility leans towards the classic, influenced by the work of other giants of 20th-century landscape, including Russell Page, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Fletcher Steele. She willingly admits that Italian garden style is her favorite, saying, “I love the way Italian designers play with light and dark, shade and bright spaces, and foliage tones.”

Nevertheless, Lilly is equally comfortable creating a modern design if the house and property demand that. A case in point is the Kramer garden in Charlottesville, which surrounds a house designed in 1984 by the modernist architect Thomas Craven with later additions by Candace M.P. Smith.

When Cathy Kramer brought Lilly in on the project, there was no outdoor living space. Lilly designed retaining walls to create a spacious level terrace and lawn area off the house. The mountain views from there are compelling. “Before building a house or designing a garden, it’s important to understand the setting, views, wind direction, microclimates and all the factors that affect the final result,” says Lilly. “That whole back area was inspired by the views.”

Lilly also improved the experience of moving through the garden with paths, stairs and a parterre garden. Recently she added a circular stone terrace as a destination within Kramer’s woodland garden.

“Rusty is brilliant at relating the garden to the house and surrounding views,” says Kramer.

Whatever the style, Lilly’s goal is to create visually appealing, serene outdoor spaces. “I don’t believe in imposing too much on the landscape,” she says. “I try to reflect the sentiment of the larger landscape, the history of the land, its buildings and the views to make a balanced, harmonious whole.”

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